MALAWI: Trying to alleviate the burden of the old

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The respect Malawi's elderly once enjoyed in society is being soured by the twin pressures of poverty and HIV/AIDS, according to a recent report, and the government is introducing social grants to alleviate the burden they carry.

"In the past, the elderly in Malawi used to depend on the economic and social support of their children and the community. With increased socio-economic difficulties and changing family ties, children fail to look after their ageing parents," said the report, Social Protection and Ageing in Malawi, by Zifa Kazeze, formerly of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

"Similarly, communities are failing to provide for the needs of the elderly. The plight of the elderly is made worse with the direct and indirect effects of HIV and AIDS."

More than 52 percent of Malawi's 13 million people live on less than US$1 a day; the resulting poor food security means that about 50 percent of children under the age of five have stunted growth, about 13 percent of the 7.3 million children aged under 18 have lost their parents, mainly as a result of HIV/AIDS, and more than 50 percent of children of primary school age have dropped out, the report said.

According to UNAIDS, about 11.9 percent of the adult population, or 930,000 people, were living with HIV/AIDS at the beginning of 2008.

"Older persons are important and have a contribution to make in socio-economic development. It is important, therefore, that the implications of ageing issues in Malawi are understood, especially the challenges older persons face, and to respond to the challenges and opportunities of ageing," the report commented.

The impact of HIV/AIDS was taking its toll mainly among young adults of working age, leaving a large number of orphans to the care of their grandparents, who were not able to provide economically for their charges while also taking care of their own needs, the authors noted.

According to Help Age International, a global network of NGOs working to promote the rights of older people, between 50 and 60 percent of orphans in Malawi, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe live with their grandparents.

The plight of the elderly

A 2003 study by the development ministry and the University of Malawi found that although most people viewed the elderly in a positive light, some regarded them as witches or wizards, while 48 percent of respondents knew about or had heard of some abuse of old people.

Undule Mwakasungura, executive director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, told IRIN it was worrying that an increasing number of the elderly, particularly women, were being condemned as witches.
"If you look at statistics, a majority of people who have been accused of witchcraft are women – and not men. In general, women are historically more vulnerable to violence due to their traditionally subordinate position in most cultures."

Mwakasungura said elderly people were also being abandoned by their children, who migrated from the rural areas to live and work in the towns and cities and did not remit money.

Malawi does not have a comprehensive social protection programme, although there is a pension fund for retired state employees, but most of the rural population, constituting about 83 percent of the total, "has no form of social protection. They are income insecure. There is therefore a need for a non-contributory pension as a significant component of old age income security," the report commented.

"I think the Social Protection Policy, which is still in draft form, is bound to protect elderly persons in Malawi. This policy is designed to ensure that the most vulnerable people, with limited factors of production, are sufficiently cushioned. This raises the hope for improved standards of living for elderly people in Malawi, particularly those who have no pensions or anyone to look after them," Mwakasungura said.

Grants for the poorest households

The government has embarked on a social cash transfer scheme, aimed at the poorest 10 percent of households, piloted in July 2006 in Mchinji District, about 100km north of the capital, Lilongwe, where 3,094 people were provided a monthly cash transfer that benefitted about 14,332 people.

Most of these households were headed by elderly people with young dependents, with no household members between the ages of 19 and 64, an indication of the impact HIV/AIDS has had on Malawi's family composition.

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria provided $371,000 for the pilot project, with the assistance the World Bank, the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD).

The amount of the monthly cash transfer depended on the family size and the number of children attending school, and was paid to the beneficiaries by staff from the District Assembly (DA), a local government body, escorted by local police officers.

Targeted households received $4 for a single-person household, $7 for a two-person household, $10 for a three-person household, and $13 for a household with four or more members. In addition, a $1.30 bonus per month was provided for each child of primary school age in the household, and $2.60 for each child of secondary school age, as an enticement to school attendance.

According to the report, by the end of March 2008 about 12,000 households were receiving social cash transfers.